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Autonomous Aerial Vehicles – How Far Away Are We?

The flying car has been a staple in sci-fi literature for nearly a century now, and it appears we might be on the cusp of making those fantasies a reality. Earlier this year, we wrote about the 9 companies that are developing their own flying cars. With the recent rise in popularity of retail drones, we may find that our first commercial aerial transport vehicles aren’t cars, but autonomous helicopters, planes, or drones. In fact, there are a number of companies currently working toward their own autonomous aerial vehicles, with some hoping to see their customers take flight in the mid-2020s. The difference between these vehicles and the flying cars we talked about earlier is that autonomous aerial vehicles aren’t designed to be roadworthy.

What Companies Are Working on Autonomous Aerial Vehicles?

Many companies, including some of the largest in the aviation industry, see autonomous aerial vehicles as the way of the future. Let’s take a look at 7 companies that have announced their own work in the autonomous aerial transportation industry:

EHang (Private)

Source: EHang

Source: EHang

Out of all of the companies working on autonomous aerial vehicles, EHang is perhaps the closest to offering a product that could be available for purchase in the next few years. Founded by Derrick Xiong, the autonomous aerospace company has received more than $52 million in 2 rounds of equity funding. The Company’s autonomous aerial vehicle, the EHang 184, was debuted at CES 2016. In June, the company announced a deal with the state of Nevada that would allow them to conduct manned test flights of the EHang 184. Those test flights that can last up to 23 minutes. As of now, the company has been tight-lipped with release date estimates.

Airbus (EPA:AIR)

airbusaerialtaxi

Source: Airbus Group

Airbus is a company that is synonymous with the aerospace industry. In 2016, Airbus announced that they were working on their own autonomous transport vehicle, and even debuted an artist’s rendering of what the vehicle may look like. The company has referred to the project as “the future of mobility,” and has stated that they believe that technology had finally reached a point where these types of vehicles were a realistic investment, stating that “technologies such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there.”

CEO of the Airbus Group, Rodin Lyasoff, went as far as to give a timetable for the commercial adoption of autonomous aerial vehicles, saying that we could see products on the market that revolutionize urban travel in as little as 10 years. Although the company has not given any timetables for the release of their own autonomous vehicle, they have said that they hope to begin testing their first autonomous aerial vehicles in 2017.

Boeing (NYSE:BA)

Credit: Boeing

Source: Boeing

The Boeing AH-6 Unmanned Little Bird is an autonomous helicopter that was designed for military use. An early model of the project made its first autonomous flight in 2004 with a safety pilot, followed by a fully autonomous flight that included obstacle avoidance in 2010. However, the Unmanned Little Bird program was originally conceived with much larger reach in mind. Boeing’s autonomous helicopter piloting system was designed to be installed on a range of military helicopters, including the Apache, as well. Because of the nature of the program, Boeing rarely comments on their work involving the Unmanned Little Bird and its systems.

Uber (Private)

ubervtol

Source: Uber

It’s no secret that Uber seeks to be one of the pioneering companies in the autonomous vehicle industry. The company has spoken extensively about a future shift toward driverless autonomous vehicles, drawing outrage from their current pool of drivers. But they have their sights set higher than just offering self-driving taxis. The company recently announced the Uber VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) project, detailing their plans and reasoning for developing autonomous aerial transport vehicles. In their report, the company describes a vision of aerial vehicles that operate with a pilot present, but use autonomy technology to reduce operator error. Their autonomous aerial vehicle would be used to ferry riders from to their destinations and could cut travel time in some areas by as much as 80 percent.

Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (Private)

In a US Army-funded project, Piasecki Aircraft Corporation is working with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to design the first full-sized autonomous helicopter. In June, for the first time ever, Piasecki tested their design, marking the first flight of an autonomous helicopter without any human input. While the military has flown autonomous helicopters previously, those flights have always been pre-programmed or remotely controlled. The Piasecki Aircraft Corp. project was designed to offer an autonomous military helicopter that could reduce loss of life and risk in battle by reacting to changing environments, delivering supplies to the battlefield, and evacuating wounded soldiers from combat zones.

E-Volo (Private)

Source: E-Volo

Source: E-Volo

E-Volo has raised $1.54 million through one round of equity funding to develop the Volocopter which we wrote about previously. Designed to inhabit the midway point between drones and helicopters, the E-Volo Volocopter gets its lift from 18 rotors, powered by an electric engine. The Volocopter is designed to be semi-autonomous, with a system that interprets and augments pilot input to help facilitate a safe, smooth ride. CEO Alexander Zosel has said that the initial design allows for a flight-time of 20-30 minutes, but hoped to improve those numbers before their first manned flight. The company is working with the German government, aiming to certify the Volocopter for sport flying. The Volocopter will cost $340,000.

Update 09/09/19: Volocopter has raised $55 million to be used for research and development, implementing safety and regulatory standards, and business development. This brings the company’s total funding to $89.74 million to date.  

Lilium Aviation (Private)

lilium-aviation

Last but not least, it was just announced hours ago that vertical take-off and landing plane developer, Lilium Aviation, has taken in $10.7 million in Series A funding to develop an alternative to small planes and helicopters. The craft is powered by 36 electric fans with test flights slated to begin next year.

Roadblocks and Challenges

Just like autonomous cars, autonomous air transportation vehicles face some large roadblocks and challenges that must be overcome before we will be able to order a driverless helicopter from our smart phone. Those challenges include:

  • Regulation and certification. Regulation and certification is the largest hurdle for any autonomous aerial vehicle manufacturer. Many of the prototypes in production are completely unique to the aerospace industry. Companies will need to work with organizations like the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to re-design regulations for autonomous flight and work to certify their original vehicle, a process that has been historically yery slow.
  • Air traffic control. A sharp increase in air traffic means additional strain to an already complicated air traffic control system in the United States and abroad. New systems may need to be developed to accommodate light, low-elevation autonomous aerial vehicles.
  • Public perception and reliability. Over 30% of American adults have stated that they are either anxious about flying (18.1%) or outright afraid to fly (12.6%) – and that only concerns commercial airplanes, which have been flying for more than a century with a wealth of data to vouch for their safety. Would the general public avoid autonomous flights because of that anxiety? Would the lack of a pilot cause some to shy away from autonomous aerial vehicles? Companies will need to ensure that their vehicles are extremely reliable, as every incident could have a large-scale impact on the public’s perception of their vehicle.

So How Far Away Are We?

That this is a difficult question to answer. The technology is nearly here, and several concept models have already conducted manned test flights of their autonomous aerial vehicles. How long it will take companies and organizations to re-configure regulations and re-design the vehicle certification process is impossible to know.

It is likely that there will be an intermediary step between piloted and completely autonomous aircrafts. The most likely scenario would be for remotely-piloted flights. The CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences, John Langford, predicted in 2015 that we would see remote-controlled passenger flights within 5 years. While that may be a bit optimistic, it raises a valid point about the future of air travel and the necessity of piloted flight. Real pilots will tell you that we are a long way off from full automation and that that the public perceptions of the current state of automation are completely exaggerated. Initial implementations will probably be for point-to-point short distances.

There is little doubt that autonomous flight will play a role in the future of air travel. To what scale and how soon it will become a reality remains to be seen.

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